Religious Freedom Week takes place from June 22-29, when Catholics are encouraged by their bishops to pray and act for religious freedom in the United States and around the world.
Beginning with the Feasts of Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More (both English martyrs of the Protestant Reformation) and concluding with the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul (a martyr and a persecutor-turned-evangelist), the week is a sobering reminder of the issue of religious liberty, without which Catholics are excluded from participation in every other important social and political issue facing our world.
“The protection of our freedoms demands vigilance, and the freedom of religion is our first freedom,” said Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki. “So we must remain vigilant in protecting it.”
“I think there’s an idea that (religion) is something for Sundays, in a building where we pray and sing,” said Kim Vercauteren, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, which serves as the public policy voice of Wisconsin’s Catholic bishops. “But that’s not what we’re called to do — we’re supposed to be out in the community, we serve the poor and the vulnerable, we stand up for the unborn and protect the dignity of human life. To do that appropriately, you can’t limit yourself to just acting and operating inside a building on Sundays.”
Both Archbishop Listecki and Vercauteren pointed to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as proof of a tendency to “isolate and marginalize” religious voices in government at all levels. Even as the representative of 1.7 million Catholics in the state of Wisconsin, Archbishop Listecki said he was never approached by elected officials to discuss the terms of the closure of churches; the rules were simply imposed.
“During this whole pandemic, it’s been very strange to me that the leadership not only in this state but nationally has not reached out to religion,” he said. “When is the last time we ever heard the government saying you can’t have religious services? And that’s what they did at the outset of this — there might have been a really good reason for it, but one of the first things I would do if I were governor is to call the religious groups together and explain, ‘We have to do this for safety issues, we’re doing it across the board for everybody … we have to try to get a handle on this and take the pressure off our hospitals.’ But there was no attempted outreach.”
“What you found out when you actually talked to faith leaders was that most faith leaders … were willing to take measures to ensure (the community was protected),” said Vercauteren. “But we were never actually consulted in the process.”
Archbishop Listecki also expressed concern about what he called attempts to rewrite history and to ignore the role religion played in the founding of this country, in the social welfare of its citizens and in the protection of their rights.
“The government today fails to realize the contributions religion made to the whole development of the country,” he said. “Religion was teaching and educating when the government was not. Religion and religious groups were establishing hospitals and caring for those in need when the government was not.”
But, as the government has moved into the business of ensuring education and welfare — a noble goal in itself — it has also taken to enshrining secular ideologies as its own kind of government-imposed religion, which is itself unconstitutional, said Archbishop Listecki.
The First Amendment prohibits a government from establishing a religion and then imposing it on its people. “(The Founding Fathers) did not want the government to establish their beliefs and the foundation of their relationship to God,” said Archbishop Listecki. “They wanted that freedom reserved to themselves.”
Reserving that freedom to each individual is actually at the heart of American freedom overall, said Archbishop Listecki. “An individual within our society is allowed to have an allegiance that supersedes government — an allegiance to God.”
Religious freedom will be the topic of discussion on the archbishop’s July 2 “Love One Another” radio show, where he welcomes as a guest former Archbishop of Milwaukee and current Archbishop of New York Timothy Cardinal Dolan, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty.
In his remarks on the show, Cardinal Dolan describes religious liberty as “the very core of the identity of this great experience we call American democracy.”
Today, the notion of religious freedom is often viewed as a right-wing cause, but that could not be further from the truth, said Cardinal Dolan.
“These rights — freedom of religion being first — they’re not something reluctantly given to us by a government. They’re implanted in the human heart. Government recognizes that right,” Dolan said. “What a government gives, a government can take away, as I’m afraid they’re trying to do now. These rights are innate in the human person, and our founders were not afraid to say they come from God.”
American Catholics are not called to be advocates of religious liberty out of concern for the Church, said Cardinal Dolan. “We’re advocates of religious liberty because we are patriotic Americans, because we are thinking human beings and because we care about human and civil rights that can only be protected by religious liberty.”
“Whenever you have a tyrant, whenever you have people itching for power, the first thing they will destroy is religion. Because religion by its nature calls the human person to an allegiance beyond the bounds of this planet,” said Cardinal Dolan. “Tyrants who want to control the entirety of their people’s lives cannot allow an allegiance, a fidelity to anyone but themselves and their government, so religion has to go.”
Further resources for religious freedom advocacy:
WCC Catholic Advocacy Network
USCCB Committee on Religious Liberty
Monthly First Freedom Newsletter
First Freedom Podcast